News Asia-Pacific

Thursday 18 September 2014

America steps in to ramp up relief effort as bodies decay in the streets

Rob Crilly and Tom Phillips Tacloban

Published 15/11/2013 | 02:00

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The sky above the city worst affected by Typhoon Haiyan was filled with the roar of engines as American aircraft began delivering much-needed aid and the international effort to help the Philippines picked up pace.

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Blackhawk helicopters buzzed back and forth between Tacloban and the USS George Washington's carrier group, which had arrived offshore, delivering crates of food slung beneath their bellies.

One week after the typhoon ripped through this part of the Philippines, the long-awaited clean-up finally seemed to be under way.

As each helicopter load arrived at the city airport, scores of Marines were on hand to direct a fleet of four Osprey aircraft, which collected the aid for delivery to some of the more remote parts of the island.

Children ride on a sack truck on their way to receive relief aid in the super typhoon-devastated city of Tacloban

At the same time teams of workers began to deploy across the city of Tacloban, bulldozing damaged houses, collecting dead bodies, and ferrying aid to outlying villages.

Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, the commanding general of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Okinawa which is spearheading the US effort, said the international response had stepped up a gear. Yesterday, US forces had reached two dozen small villages, he said, while aid convoys were converging on Tacloban by a combination of ferry and road.

"The priority is providing immediate life support aid: food, water, shelter, medical supplies. There are entire convoys of trucks converging on Tacloban from Manila, from Cebu, it is building up," he said. "As cellphones are coming up people are reporting in what their needs are."

Those needs remained undeniably huge. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been flattened and it will take months or years to rebuild them.

The electricity is off, telephone lines are down and the hospitals are running out of medicine. Roads remain blocked by fallen trees, the shops are empty, looted of food.

Water is scarce or polluted – and no-one can find petrol. On top of all that, medical workers now fear a wave of disease could spread. It was difficult to know where to begin and for almost a week, little had been done.

Some of the corpses that have lain at the side of the road for days – blackening and swelling as the humid heat accelerated their decay – were finally being slipped into body bags.

The grisly task of retrieving them fell to Police Superintendent Alex Uy and his team.

"The most difficult thing is the degree of decay," he said, pausing for breath beside the stinking main road. "They are in an advanced stage of decomposition so the smell is terrible and handling the bodies is not easy."

Body bags containing victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan are lined up in Tacloban

City officials originally estimated that 10,000 people had died in Tacloban and the surrounding island of coastal communities and farming villages.

So far the closest thing to an official tally, at the city's main hospital, puts the dead at fewer than 2,000 – which leaves a lot of work for Supt Uy and the other recovery teams.

He said it would take a month to finish gathering the bodies as his men struggled to unearth victims buried beneath mounds of debris – mangled corrugated iron roofs, felled palm trees and anything else carried by the storm surge.

"I can't be certain," he said. "There are many, many more under the debris. Some are buried very deep. There are places my men cannot reach."

By 9.30am yesterday, Supt Uy's team had already loaded nine bags on to a police truck. More would follow.

One by one they were being retrieved along the main road through Tacloban, and deposited on the verge. A young boy shelters from the rain while waiting for an evacuation flight at the airport in Tacloban

Ten lay in an evenly-spaced row. A few hundred yards further there were 15 more, then five, then seven, then 10, then another 20.

Three had been left alone, before a final cluster of four on the Tarmac, not far from where a family had meanwhile laid out a sack of storm-damaged rice, attempting to dry the damp grains in the sun.

Elsewhere, work teams fanned out through the city. Mechanical diggers began the job of demolishing half-destroyed homes or sawing trees into logs to be transported away.

The aid effort has been criticised both at home and abroad. So far much of the charity on offer had been coming from relatives and friends.

Neighbours have taken in neighbours and extended families have shared meagre supplies of rice and tinned food as aid agencies have struggled to cope with the country's shattered infrastructure.

The government has been forced repeatedly to defend its response with almost 600,000 people homeless and 20,000 still missing. Food and water are running dangerously low in many regions, while hospitals in the worst-hit areas are have rut out of many medicines.

An aerial view shows the coast affected by Typhoon Haiyan in Hernani, eastern Samar, central Philippines

But the surge in activity yesterday at Tacloban airport, the hub for humanitarian efforts in the region, brought a glimmering of hope as donors steped up their efforts.

For local officials, however, there is still a long way to go. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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